Russian foreign agent law

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Foreign agent law
  • On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent
Enacted20 July 2012
Commenced21 November 2012
Legislative history

The Russian "foreign agent" law, officially "On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent", is a law in Russia that requires non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in "political activity" to register and declare themselves as foreign agents.[1]

The bill was introduced in July 2012 by legislators from the governing United Russia party and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on 20 July 2012.[1] The new legislation is a series of amendments to existing laws with changes being applied to the criminal code and the laws “On Public Associations,” “On Noncommercial Organizations,” and “On Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.[2]” The law went into effect in November 2012, but was not actively enforced until Vladimir Putin instructed law-enforcement officials to do so during a speech to members of the Federal Security Service (Russia) on Valentine's Day 2013, stating that "Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable."[3][4][5]

Once registered, NGOs are subject to additional audits and are obliged to mark all their official statements with a disclosure that it is being given by a "foreign agent". The word "foreign agent" (Иностранный агент) in Russian has strong associations with cold war-era espionage, and the law has been criticized both in Russia and internationally as a violation of human rights and as being designed to counter opposition groups; supporters of the law have likened it to United States legislation on lobbyists employed by foreign governments.[6][7][8][9]

Implications for NGOs[edit]

The foreign agent label increases registration barriers for an NGO in Russia. This includes restrictions on foreigners and stateless peoples from establishing or even participating in the organization. A NGO must then submit to extensive audits. Supervisory powers are allowed to intervene and interrupt the internal affairs of the NGO with suspensions for up to six months.[10]

Once labeled as foreign agents, organizations are obliged to mark all their publications and to begin each oral statement with a disclosure that it is being given by a "foreign agent".[11] It also limits the way a foreign organization can make tax-exempt donations to specific people or the NGO by requiring them to register and be placed on a very limited list of approved organizations.[10]

Some NGOs report curtailed access to government officials and public institutions and continued harassment.[11][12] NGO raids have been reported as being accompanied by television crews from TV channel NTV.[13][14]

A Ministry of Justice report obtained by the Russian business daily Vedomosti in May 2016 said criticism of the "foreign agents" law qualifies as political activity under the "foreign agents" law.[15]


On 4 June 2014, an amendment to the "foreign agents law" came into force, authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as "foreign agents" without their consent, if the ministry regards the organizations as engaged in "political activity" and if the organization is receiving foreign funding.[16]

By 29 June 2015, according to a report by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the list of "foreign agents" included at least 70 NGOs. Of those, only five organizations voluntarily agreed to designate themselves "foreign agents". At least 20 NGOs have ceased their activity either in full or in part, including through "self-liquidation". The majority of organizations were included in the first half of 2015.[17]

By 24 October 2016, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the list of active "foreign agents" included 105 NGOs. Of those, four registered voluntarily and at least 58 were prosecuted for not doing so.[16]

Law enforcement officers in Russia have raided the offices of several targeted organizations to seize documents and records related to their operation. Several prominent international organizations have been targeted, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Transparency International.[18] Overall, more than 55 organizations in 16 Russian regions have been audited.[3] These raids are often joined by journalists from NTV, which has aired programs which accuse human rights and opposition activists of pushing the interests of the United States.[4][19][20]

In June 2017, head of the human rights NGO "Union of Women of Don" Valentina Cherevatenko was formally charged with "malicious evasion" of legal requirements set out in the law, making it the first criminal proceedings initiated for non-compliance. Cherevatenko faces two years in prison.[21]

Notable cases[edit]

  • Movement for Defence of Voters' Rights Golos Logo.png
    GOLOS Association, Russia's only independent election monitoring organization,[22] was instructed by the Russian Justice Ministry to declare themselves a "foreign agent" for accepting an award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.[23] After GOLOS refused to register, stating that it had not accepted the prize money, it was fined and suspended for six months.[23][24][25] Russian police subsequently raided the offices and the homes of employees and confiscated equipment.[26]
  • Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency, received between 3 and 1.5% of its total budget from abroad.[27] It was issued with a public warning that it would be eligible under the law.[27] Levada said it suspended foreign funding in 2013.[28] In 2016, the polling agency was named a foreign agent, barring it from work on the upcoming election.[28][29] Levada's director stated that the designation may mean that Levada would be unable to continue its work as a pollster.[30]
  • Memorial, one of Russia's oldest organizations dedicated to preventing a return to authoritarianism, also refused to register under the law. They were officially audited, and provided 8,776 pages of information documenting their activities.[7] It was placed on the registry in 2015.[31]
  • Dynasty Foundation, Russia's only private funder of scientific research, shut down after being included in the registry.[32][33]
  • Russia's Committee Against Torture disputed their inclusion into the registry in court, but the appeal was rejected. Refusing to operate under the law's conditions, it announced its dissolution.[34][35]
  • After Glasnost Defence Foundation was designated a "foreign agent", the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe[36] and the Russian President's Human Rights Council criticised the decision.[37]
  • Transparency International Russia.png
    Transparency International (TI-R) was declared eligible for the label in 2013. The reason given was TI-R receiving money from foreign sources, and being a part of the Expert Commission for Open Governance in Russia, which deals with political activities.[38] TI-R believes that their position on the Expert Commission for Open Governance in Russia should preclude them from being forced to register as a foreign agent, seeing as it is a status appointed by the Russian Government. They also claim that the phrase "political activity" is too broadly defined in the law, and that it needs to have narrow, specific definitions.[39] Despite TI-R objections, in April 2015, the Russian Ministry of Justice placed Transparency International on its list of 'foreign agents'.[40]
  • The American MacArthur Foundation, citing the foreign agent law along with its designation as an "undesirable organization", closed its Russian division, operating since 1992.[41]



Russia's Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin and several non-governmental groups filed an appeal with Russia's Constitutional Court, arguing that the law violated constitutional provisions on freedom of association (Article 30) and that the definitions of "political activities" and "foreign agents" in its text were too vague.[42][43] On 8 April 2014, the court decided that the law did not infringe on the Constitutional right to association, and that the foreign agent designation was in the public interest.[44]

Russia's Presidential Council for Human Rights, citing the targeting of Dynasty Foundation and the Committee Against Torture, called upon the Plenum of the Supreme Court to examine the practice of the courts in the application of the law.[45]

In February 2016, the Russian PEN Center issued an open letter protesting amendments to the law which defined "political activity" as activity aimed at influencing the government or public opinion.[46]


The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued an opinion raising "several serious issues" with the formulation and implementation of the law according to Council of Europe standards. It called upon Russia to reformulate the vague criteria of "political activities", and to abandon the term "foreign agent", stating that "by bringing back the rhetoric used during the communist period, this term stigmatises the NCOs to which it is applied, tarnishing their reputation and seriously hampering their activities."[47]

Secretary-general of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland expressed concerns about the law during a joint news conference with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, stating that "[The law] can have a chilling effect on the NGO community, particularly if this law is not being put into practice in the right manner."[48]

Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Union, expressed concern about the law and resulting raids, stating that "The inspections and searches launched against the Russian NGO community and conducted on vague legal grounds are worrisome since they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society in the country."[4]

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in its "Helsinki Declaration" from July 2015 called upon Russia to "end its attempts to stigmatize and discredit civil society groups by labeling them foreign agents".[49]

United States Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner criticized the draft legislation while speaking to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, saying "We are deeply concerned about the worsening climate for media freedom in Russia. Earlier this month the Duma passed laws enabling Internet censorship and re-criminalizing defamation. The Duma has also discussed labeling news outlets that are funded internationally as 'foreign agents' – a stigmatizing term now also applied to NGOs."[50]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly rebuked President Putin while he visited Hanover, shortly after Russian officials searched and confiscated documents and equipment from two German NGOs operating in Russia.[51] German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle declared the moves against the nonprofits unacceptable, and warned through a spokesperson that they could "have a sustained effect on bilateral relations."[52]


In 2015, the science and education supporting fund Dynasty Foundation run by Dmitry Zimin, founder of Vympelcom, closed after being forced to label itself as a "foreign agent". This decision of the Ministry of Justice has sparked a lot of criticism as "Dynasty" was not involved in politics and fully focused on national education in Russia. It also received no funds from foreign third parties, merely keeping part of their funds on foreign bank accounts. After mass protests of the academic community against this discrimination Zimin attempted appeals and when they remained unsuccessful, he decided to close the fund and left Russia.[53][54]

The Committee Against Torture also declared the organisation will be closed after it lost an appeal against the Justice Ministry qualifying it as a "foreign agent".[55][56]

According to Human Rights Watch, by August 2016 at least 13 groups chose to shut down rather than wear the "foreign agent" label.[16]

Since the law was passed in Russia, Transparency International-Russia (TI-R) has fought it. In November 2012 the Board of the Center of TI-R issued a statement declaring the law unconstitutional, claiming it impairs their rights to organize and participate in governance.[57] TI-R claims that the "foreign agent" law enacted by the Russian Government is unconstitutional according to the Russian constitution based on its articles concerning freedom of speech and the right to participate in governance.[39] TI-R was itself placed on the list of foreign agents in 2015.[40]

'Undesirable organizations' law[edit]

As a follow-up to the Foreign agent law, on 23 May 2015, President Putin passed the Undesirable Organizations bill into law citing "national security". The law bans non-governmental organizations that it deems undesirable as a "threat to the constitutional order and defense capability, or the security of the Russian state." NGOs that do not disband when given notice to do so are now subject to high fines and significant jail time. Critics say the terms are unclear and lead to dangerous precedent. Supporters of the bill reference organizations that have become actively involved in supporting political dissent.

Media law[edit]

In November 2017, President Putin signed a law that would force foreign-funded news agencies in Russia to be classified as foreign agents and disclose their funding sources. This was done in response to a recent American law forcing Russian-funded news agencies in the US to register as "foreign agents".[58]

See also[edit]


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